August 7, 2019
The Polyphony of Pollinators
Posted by: Rock Delliquanti
Header photo provided by Phil Murdaco (@phillipmurdaco on Instagram)
Last month we talked about the unsung Lepidopteran, the moth. This month, we wanted to bring all of our pollinating insects into the spotlight--bees, wasps, butterflies, and many more--and also let people in Georgia know of a very special event happening later this month involving these crucial pollinators.
Starting at the beginning, pollination is the process that flowering plants use to procreate. Pollen grains are moved from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. Sometimes this is on the same plant, sometimes on different plants, and each plant has its own strategies to get pollen where it needs to go. Once the pollen makes it from anther to stigma fertilization can occur and that flower can transform into a fruiting body--anything from an acorns to apples and everything in between.
Pollen can be spread abiotically by wind, water or rain, but this only accounts for approximately 20% of flowering plants, including important agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, and corn, and important trees like pines, spruces, and firs. The alternative method that is more widely used is called biotic pollination. This is where plants rely on animals to spread their pollen from flower to flower. Those animals that transfer the pollen of plants are called pollinators and they’re helping propagate the other roughly 80% of flowering plants on the planet.
Photo above provided by Phil Murdaco (@phillipmurdaco on Instagram)
The main pollinators that people are familiar with are lumped into a few groups: bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, birds, bats, and beetles. These pollinators are all doing the same job--bringing pollen from Flower A to Flower B to Flower C, etc.--but this brings up the question of why. Primarily, pollinators are looking for food in the form of nectar or pollen or looking for a potential mate. Plants have evolved to entice pollinators for millennia by maximizing the nectar availability, the shape and color of the flowers, and all manner of additional structures that can be used to lure in or otherwise trick pollinators. Once the pollinator interacts with the flower for whatever reward it is seeking the pollinator inadvertently becomes covered with pollen. Then the pollen-laden traveler goes to another flower seeking a reward, drops off a few grains of pollen, and picks up some new ones. Then some time after pollination, the flower will drop off and leave behind the fruit, which will then spread the seeds of the plant elsewhere.
Photo above provided by Kate Tweedy
All this to say that plants and animals have co-evolved together for millions of years and ecosystems globally are dependant on these pollinators to keep things running smoothly. It is a dance of food and reproduction, of flora and fauna, and it is what makes a strong foundation for the rest of the world to function properly. However, it has been recorded that in recent history these pollinators are declining everywhere in their population numbers as well as in the variety of species. The majority of media attention has been focused on honeybees in North America and Europe, but pollination occurs from more than just honeybees and it happens globally, not just in our backyards.
A number of reasons have been given from pesticide use on bees, to the introduction of diseases, parasites, and invasive species from other parts of the world, to loss of habitat and food availability, and many others. Some of these issues are bigger than any one of us could tackle alone, but there are steps that can be taken to help pollinators out. One of the easiest (and most enjoyable) ways is to plant a pollinator friendly garden. There are many resources online, at local nurseries, and at nearby botanical gardens for what plants to use when and where, but if you want a more in-depth read on your region I recommend https://www.pollinator.org/guides(here on Little St. Simons Island we are located in the “Outer Coastal” region!). Additionally, there are many resources available to write your state representatives on behalf of pollinator conscious organizations to help show a demand for legislation protecting our pollinators.
Photo above provided by Kate Tweedy
Finally for those in Georgia, later this month there is an event called the Great Georgia Pollinator Census going on from August 23-24. All you need is a printed out data-sheet and a flowering plant to watch for 15 minutes! Anyone can participate and there is no fee or sign up required. There are several events being hosted around the state in case you want to join in a bigger group for the census. Personally speaking, I am going to spend time in our organic garden during the census and contribute to this citizen science project to help better understand our pollinator populations in the state, and I urge you to do the same wherever you can!
All the details can be found here at: https://ggapc.org/